In case you had forgotten already yesterday was Sunday. Here is a surprising fact, despite the accelerating decline of Christianity more people gathered in Church buildings in the UK than attended football matches on Saturdays during the football season! You don’t often hear that statistic from the media. Yet in some ways I find that fact a depressing statistic for it underlines the fact that despite its decline Christianity in the UK numerically is still a huge force, but a largely impotent one. The sheer number of people who turn up at a church building week by week means that Christianity has a potential which is incredible and yet the truth is that the Church makes very little real impact in our nation and what little influence it has is dwindling. Pondering all of that that made me think about a parable once told by Danish Christian prophetic and provocative philosopher Soren Kierkegaard
“A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. ‘My fellow travellers on the way of life,’ he would say, ‘can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence?
I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. For did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.
The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. ‘How poetical,’ they thought. ‘How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.’ Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies.
And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher’s message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!” *An English translation as quoted by Athol Gill, The Fringes Of Freedom: Following Jesus, Living Together, Working For Justice.
Do I need to spell out the what the little Danish prophet is getting at? Ok I will. Yesterday hundreds of thousands of geese (Christians) gathered in barn yards (churches) to hear philosophers (preachers) talk about an existence beyond the normal (Kingdom of God) but today, Monday, the vast majority won’t fly, they won’t actually live the life of the Kingdom. Kierkegaard is arguing that the way they existed as church in his day in Denmark was producing listeners but not disciples. I don’t see its any different in Scotland today.
I am not sure I know of any more piercing and damming indictment of the Church than Kierkegaard’s final paragraph, “And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher’s message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!” I am pretty certain that many people left Church buildings yesterday and did indeed feel “uplifted, inspired and moved by the message” but today they didn’t fly, they either can’t or won’t live the life of the Kingdom of God. They won’t risk the corn of this world for the adventure of living in the Kingdom of God.
I have to confess that don’t have all the answers but I am convinced that as the church in this changing era we need to make Christianity less about what we do for a few hours on Sunday and more about what we do every day in our every day lives. I have read umpteen books about church planting but actually most of them are not about releasing a new expression of Christ’s Body into the world to make a transformative impact. The vast majority of the literature about church planting is actually about event planning, about how to start an event on a Sunday morning and attract a crowd of people to come and hear somebody preach. Now I am not saying that gathering as a church to worship and hear God’s Word is not important, I am just questioning whether it should be all important. I am wondering if you make that your main emphasis in what it means to be church, to turn up to an event to hear a message, if you are effectively preventing Christians from learning to fly?
I am more and more convinced that Kierkegaard was right, that we need to liberate the church from being a place people go primarily to hear a message to being a community that goes out in mission to embody and express and so live out the radical message of the Kingdom of God. I think what I am saying is that if we want to have a great impact as God’s people we need to more effort and emphasis into making disciples and less into just running Sunday services. Discipleship is the key to a vibrant expression of church and needs to become our holy obsession, our main emphasis and ultimate goal. After all isn’t that what Jesus called us to do? “Therefore go and make disciples …” Matthew 28:19